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SPANISH POLITICS

What does the far right’s victory in Italy mean for Spain?

With the recent victory of Giorgia Meloni's far-right Fratelli d'Italia party in the Italian elections, what - if anything - does her win mean for Spain's 2023 general elections and the Spanish far right?

What does the far right's victory in Italy mean for Spain?
Both Meloni and Abascal have criticised immigration and border policy as leftist and soft, and are critical of what they perceive to be the European Union's failure to secure its external borders. Photos: Igor PETYX, Javier SORIANO/AFP

By voting for Giorgia Meloni on Sunday, Italians voted for not only the first female Prime Minister in its history, but also the first far-right leader since Mussolini. 

Around one in four voters in last week’s election backed Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, or Brothers of Italy in English, a party with deep post-fascist roots that campaigned on low taxes, traditional Catholic family values, and promises of putting an end to mass immigration.

READ ALSO: What will a far-right government mean for Italy

As we have seen from populist far-right politicians the world over in recent years, Meloni’s campaign raged at the state of the modern world and hit on populist talking point after talking populist talking point, criticising what she perceives as the “LGBT lobby”, “woke ideology” and “violence of Islam”.

For those of you with any familiarity with Spanish politics, some of this language may seem familiar.

Spain’s very own far-right party, Vox, often use similar language and rage against vague notions of ‘woke’ thought.

Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal, has spent the last few years cultivating a narrative that traditional Spanish identity is under attack from a combination of LGBT groups, immigrants, and Islam.

EXPLAINED: Is Brothers of Italy a ‘far right’ party?

Vox and Abascal have both been widely criticised for being racist, xenophobic, homophobic and misogynistic, and Meloni’s victory in Italy has understandably led many to wonder, can the far right win in Spain?

To transpose one country’s set of political circumstances directly onto another would be an oversimplification. Spain and Italy are different countries with different cultures, political systems, histories, and levels of stability.

In Italy, there have been 77 governments in 70 years, whereas Spain has traditionally been dominated by its to establishment parties, PSOE and PP.

Yet, it is impossible to ignore some of the similarities between Vox and Brothers of Italy, not least the fact that Vox and Meloni have had a direct relationship in the past.

So, what does the far-right’s victory in Italy mean for Spanish politics?

Reaction in Spain

Understandably, the Italian elections have made big news in Spain.

Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares reacted by saying that “these are uncertain times and at times like this, populist movements always grow, but it always ends in the same way – in catastrophe – because they offer simple short-term answers to problems which are very complex.”

Unsurprisingly, the response of the Spanish far-right struck a different chord.

“Tonight, millions of Europeans have their hopes pinned on Italy,” Santiago Abascal tweeted in the aftermath of the result, accompanied by pictures of himself with Meloni. Abascal: “Giorgia Meloni has shown the way forward for a Europe of proud, free and sovereign nations, capable of cooperating for the security and prosperity of all. Avanti Fratelli d’Italia.”

Far-left party Unidas Podemos’s leader Ione Belarra, however, warned that “the victory of the Italian far right showcases the normalisation of hate speech and the lack of courageous policies that protect the social majority. Spain is not free from experiencing something like this.

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, perceived by some to be a more moderate PP leader who took over from Pablo Casado earlier this year, was slow in responding publicly. His response, which came a couple of days after the result, was noncommittal and “to see what the Government of Italy does.”

Abascal-Meloni connection

The connection between the two far-right parties predates Meloni’s recent victory. In May 2021 members of the Italian far-right came to Spain to meet with Abascal in Madrid to reaffirm “the total harmony of the two political formations in the face of the new challenges facing the continent.”

Meloni returned to Madrid in October 2021 to participate in Vox’s convention, noting the “increasingly close collaboration between the Brothers of Italy and Vox within the family of European conservatives.”

Meloni chairs the Group of European Conservatives and Reformists, of which Vox is a member, and she made a speech, in Spanish, at a Vox campaign rally in Marbella in June ahead of the regional elections in Andalusia that was laden with in anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, LGT and unashamedly racist rhetoric.

In a recent radio interview on EsRadio, Abascal claimed that the “relationship with Giorgia Meloni is very close for reasons of political identity…I see it as a great reaction of nations to political elites who have turned their backs on them.” 

Policy

So, where do Vox and Brothers of Italy align on policy?

One major point of policy convergence is on immigration. Both Meloni and Abascal have criticised immigration and border policy as leftist and soft, and are critical of what they perceive to be the European Union’s failure to secure its external borders – an issue very topical in both Spain and Italy as both have external European borders in the Mediterranean.

In Spain, the focus of this anti-immigrant rhetoric has focused on its southern regions and Ceuta and Melilla, its African enclaves and Europe’s only land borders with Africa.

Meloni, too, has cited Ceuta and Melilla as examples of the EU’s failed border policy, and even proposed a naval blockade of the Mediterranean. Vox have long used border problems in Ceuta and Melilla as a rallying call and supported an increased military presence to “guarantee the protection of these territories against invasions promoted by neighbouring states or international organisations.”

On abortion, Meloni struck a noticeably softer tone during her election campaign. Though in the past she has aligned herself with anti-abortion rhetoric and policy and this has been particularly pronounced within her party, she has ruled out overturning Italy’s abortion law. Her underlying stance on abortion has, however, worried many pro-abortion and women’s group because though not explicitly promising to repeal abortion rights, she has stated that she “wants [people] to know there are other options.”

Vox, on the other hand, have been more explicit in their desire to repeal Spain’s abortion legalisation, and have been critical of Spain’s recent legalisation of euthanasia.

On gender and LGBT issues, both are critical of what they believe to be the degrading of traditional family values and see the LGBT movement as an ideological, left versus right issue. In Meloni’s words, LGBT rights are “historically positioned itself on the left.”

Vox too have been fierce in the criticism of LGBT education in schools, something they believe to be “gender indoctrination.” This is a position shared by Meloni and the Spanish far-right, as she outlined in an interview in May: “We are still concerned about the involvement of children and adolescents in issues such as gender ideology that only generate confusion and a sense of insecurity.”

On the regional level Vox have taken this a step further, introducing a ‘Parental Pin’ that allows parents to withdraw their children from LGBT education workshops in the southern region of Murcia.

READ ALSO: Vox’s ‘Parental Pin’ – how Spain’s far-right is battling for parental vetoes in schools

Vox and Brothers of Italy perhaps differ most on climate change. Whereas Meloni has conceded that efforts must be taken to slow the effects of climate change, Vox decries what they call a “climate religion” and frame it as part of a broader narrative about an attack on working people.

Lega leader Matteo Salvini, Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi and Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni acknowledge applause on stage on September 22th 2022 during a joint rally ahead of Italy’s general election. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

Meloni effect?

Vox have had a swift rise to relevance since its creation in 2013, breaking onto the electoral map in regional elections in Murcia in 2019.

Since then, it has overtaken Unidas Podemos as Spain’s third political party behind PSOE and PP, and in April Vox entered into a regional government for the first time in coalition with PP in the central Castilla y León region just north of Madrid.

READ ALSO: Spain’s far-right Vox sworn into regional government

For many political observers in Spain, this triggered fears that Vox could threaten to replicate their position of junior coalition partner at the national level. 

Yet the far-right party’s performance in recent regional Andalusian elections quelled fears. In fact, since that disappointing result, much of Vox’s attention has been taken up by internal infighting between their former candidate in Andalusia, Macarena Olona, and the party’s leadership.

Though Meloni’s victory will worry many in Spain and has sparked fears that the far-right could sweep to power in Spain, it must not be forgotten that the two political contexts – and structures – are different. Spanish politics, like in Britain or the United States, is dominated by the two major establishment parties.

The prospect of Vox, or indeed any third party, overtaking either of them and becoming the biggest party in parliament, whether with a majority or as a coalition leader, is very unlikely.

The question is not whether Vox and Santiago Abascal will take up a position in La Moncloa, but whether they can affect Spanish politics, particularly the centre-right People’s Party, to influence policy or even enter into a national coalition.

The fact that Meloni will be Italy’s next Prime Minister, however, could rally the Spanish far right and give them a short-term boost in the polls, or even convince some wavering voters considering voting for Vox that their vote wouldn’t be wasted.

Looking ahead

A lot will depend on whether the PP can strengthen its position enough in the coming year to ensure it can govern alone, and not need to rely on Vox as a junior coalition partner, or whether Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE led government can recover in the polls and present a coherent policy platform despite having a large chunk of its time in office eaten up by the pandemic and cost of living crisis.

Looking at the latest polling data from Europe Elects, Vox have been declining steadily since reaching a high of 20.2 percent in March 2022, which briefly put it within touching distance of the two main parties, down to 15.3 percent in September.

The PSOE government is polling around 24.7 percent, PP 32.1 percent, and the junior coalition partner in government, Podemos, polling 10.4 percent. 

The next general election is slated for some time in late-2023, and it remains to be seen if PP can pull away enough for an overall majority, or if Vox will benefit from a Meloni-bounce in the polls, eat into PP’s vote share, and make the prospect of the Spanish far-right in a national coalition a political reality.

One surety, though, is that Vox will want to use Meloni and that we can expect to see her in Spain supporting Vox on the campaign trail in the near future. It promises to be an eventful year in Spanish politics.

READ ALSO: 

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For members

BREXIT

What is the latest on Gibraltar’s Brexit status?

With 2023 approaching and negotiations between Gibraltar, the UK, EU and Spain dragging on for yet another year, what is the latest on Gibraltar and Brexit? Will they reach a deal before New Year and how could it affect life in Gibraltar and Spain?

What is the latest on Gibraltar's Brexit status?

As British politics tries to move on from Brexit, the tiny British territory at the southern tip of Spain, Gibraltar, has been stuck in political limbo since the referendum all the way back in 2016.

Gibraltar, which voted in favour of Remain during the referendum by a whopping 96 percent, was not included in the Brexit deal and has instead relied on a framework agreement made between the UK and Spain on New Year’s Eve in 2020.

After that framework was laid out, it was hoped that the various parties – that is, the Gibraltarian government, Spain, the EU, and the UK – would build on it and quickly find a wider treaty agreement establishing Gibraltar’s place on the European mainland in the post-Brexit world.

It was thought that Gibraltar could enter into a common travel area with the Schengen zone, limiting border controls and essentially creating a custom-made customs arrangement with the EU.

But since then, the negotiation process has stopped and started, with no deal being made and uncertainty dragging on through 2021.

Despite all parties still being relatively optimistic in the spring of 2022, no resolution has been found and 2023 is approaching.

Relying on the framework agreement alone, uncertainty about what exactly the rules are and how they should be implemented have caused confusion and long delays on the border.

The roadblocks

Progress in the multi-faceted negotiations to bash out a treaty and determine Gibraltar’s place in the post-Brexit world have repeatedly stumbled over the same roadblocks.

The main one is the issue of the border. Known in Spain and Gibraltar as La Línea – meaning ‘the line’ in reference to the Spanish town directly across the border, La Línea de la Concepción – the subject of the border and who exactly will patrol it (and on which side) has been a constant sticking point in negotiations.

Madrid and Brussels have approached the British government with a proposal for removing the border fence between Spain and Gibraltar in order to ease freedom of movement, Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said in late November 2022. There has been no immediate response from London.

The Gibraltarians refuse to accept Spanish boots on the ground and would prefer the European-wide Frontex border force. The British government feel this would be an impingement on British sovereignty. There’s also been the persistent issues of VAT and corporation tax considerations, as well as the British Navy base and how to police the waters around it.

Though there had been reports that the ongoing British driving license in Spain fiasco had been one of the reasons negotiations had stalled, the British ambassador to Spain Hugh Elliot categorically denied any connection between the issue of Gibraltar’s Brexit deal and British driving licence recognition earlier in November.

READ ALSO: CONFIRMED: Deal on UK licences in Spain agreed but still no exchange date

On different pages?

Not only do the long-standing sticking points remain, but it also seems that the various negotiating parties are on slightly different pages with regards to how exactly each seems to think the negotiations are going.

Judging by reports in the Spanish press in recent weeks, it appears that many in Spain may believe the negotiations are wrapping up and a conclusion could be found by New Year. This perception comes largely from comments made by Pascual Navarro, Spain’s State Secretary to the EU. Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Navarro claimed that negotiations have advanced so well that they were now only working ‘on the commas’ of the text – that is to say, tidying it up.

According to Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, though negotiations are ongoing, “we’re not there yet”. (Photo: JORGE GUERRERO/AFP)

“No issue that is blocked,” he said. “All of the text is on the table.” A full treaty, he suggested, could be signed “before the end of the year.”

Yet it seems the Gibraltarians don’t quite see the progress as positively as their neighbours. Last week the Gibraltar government, known as No.6, acknowledged Navarro’s optimism.

According to Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo however, though negotiations are ongoing, “we’re not there yet”.

No.6 remains positive and hopes for a deal, but in recent weeks has also published technical contingency plans for businesses to prepare for what they are calling a ‘Non-Negotiated Outcome’ – effectively a ‘no-deal’ in normal Brexit jargon.

The UK, however, seem to be somewhere in the middle. Like Navarro, the British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly recently suggested at a House of Commons select committee that only “a relatively small number” of issues remain to be resolved.

However, he also acknowledged the possibility of a non-negotiated outcome. “I think it’s legitimate to look at that [planning for a non-negotiated outcome] as part of our thinking,” Mr Cleverly said. “But obviously we are trying to avoid an NNO.”

Election year

If no deal is found by New Year, that would mean that negotiations drag into 2023 – election years for both Picardo and Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s Prime Minister.

Gibraltar is expected to have elections sometime in the second-half of the year, and Sánchez has to call an election by the end of 2023.

In many ways, Spanish domestic politics has the potential to play a far greater role in Gibraltar’s fate than British politics. In fact, the shadow of Spanish politics looms over these negotiations and the future relationship between Spain and Gibraltar, the UK and Spain, and the UK and EU.

If Sánchez’s PSOE were to lose the election, which according to the latest polling data is the most probable outcome, then it would be likely that Spain’s centre-right party PP would seek to renegotiate, if not outright reject, any deal made.

READ ALSO: Who will win Spain’s 2023 election – Sánchez or Feijóo?

If PP are unable to secure a ruling majority, however, they may well be forced to rely on the far-right party Vox, who have often used nationalist anti-Gibraltar rhetoric as a political weapon. If Vox were to enter into government, which is unlikely but a possibility, it’s safe to say any agreement – if one is even reached before then – would be torn up and the Spanish government would take a much harder line in negotiations.

As the consequences of Brexit churn on in Britain, in Gibraltar uncertainty looms.

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